Social Work Research in the UK: A View through the Lens of REF2021

Nicky Stanley, Elaine Sharland, Luke Geoghegan, Ravinder Barn, Alisoun Milne, Judith Phillips, Kirby Swales

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Research Assessment Exercise was introduced in 1986 to measure research quality and to determine the allocation of higher education funding. The renamed Research Excellence Framework (REF) has become an important barometer of research capacity and calibre across academic disciplines in UK universities. Based on the expert insights of REF sub-panel members for Unit of Assessment 20 (UOA20), Social Work and Social Policy, this article contributes to understanding of the current state of UK social work research. It documents the process of research quality assessment and reports on the current social work research landscape, including impact. Given its growing vigour, in- creased engagement with theory and conceptual frameworks, policy and practice and its methodological diversity, it is evident that social work research has achieved con- siderable consolidation and growth in its activity and knowledge base. Whilst Russell Group and older universities cluster at the top of the REF rankings, this cannot be taken for granted as some newer institutions performed well in REF2021. The article argues that the discipline’s embeddedness in interdisciplinary research, its quest for social justice and its applied nature align well with the REF framework where interdisciplinarity, equality, diversity and inclusion and impact constitute core principles.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberbcad116
Pages (from-to)1-20
Number of pages20
JournalBritish Journal of Social Work
Early online date12 Apr 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 12 Apr 2023


  • REF2021, research, research impact, social work

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